India is home to one of the world’s oldest religions, Hinduism. It also has a Muslim population estimated at more than 140 million and significant Christian and Sikh minorities. A growing trend is for people to go online to get their daily dose of religion. Religion is very important to most Indians, and the country is dotted with temples and religious shrines. Many young Indians are expressing their discontent with organized religion and are seeking alternatives. Mahesh Mohanan set up saranam.com, a Web site, which sells religious services, since 1999.
By Sanjoy Majumder
India is home to one of the world’s oldest religions, Hinduism. It also has a Muslim population estimated at more than 140 million and significant Christian and Sikh minorities.
A growing trend is for people to go online to get their daily dose of religion.
Religion is very important to most Indians, and the country is dotted with temples and religious shrines.
But increasingly, many young Indians are expressing their discontent with organized religion and are seeking alternatives.
Madras, in the deep south, has for years been a very conservative city. The city’s Tamil majority population is deeply religious, and the city and its surrounding areas have some of the country’s oldest and most magnificent temples.
But the city is also very modern and, economically, is one of the country’s most progressive. It is at the center of the growing automobile industry as is an important player in the cutting edge IT industry.
Advertising director Dinesh Damodaran is typical of many of the young executives in today’s India.
He holds a high-pressure job in a demanding profession, working to tight deadlines.
“It’s a two-day shoot, we’re on day two and I have only two more days to finish post-production before we go on air – we’re watching the clock all the time,” he says.
With growing stress levels, young people like him are seeking a way to release their anxieties. But a visit to the neighborhood temple is not what he has in mind.
“A lot of religious practices have been handed down from generation to generation. A lot of it has lost its relevance. I think modern-day youth want something with a direct impact on what they do.”
In an India at the forefront of an IT revolution, it is not surprising that an online portal decided to cash in on this need for immediate salvation.
Mahesh Mohanan set up saranam.com, a Web site, which sells religious services, in 1999.
For a fee ranging from $4 to $300, Indians can perform virtual complex religious ceremonies in any temple in the country.
“People just log in, go through our services and place an order,” says Mohanan.
“We have a network of priests, we call them franchises. They go out and perform the ceremony.”
Mohanan hit upon the idea when he had to make a pilgrimage to several temples after he got married, and just found the experience too arduous.
“Basically, people don’t have time,” he says.
“Several of these temples are spread far and wide, and getting to them can be difficult. We even get requests from Madras, from people who want to conduct prayers at a city temple or at one that’s only a few hours away.
“It’s much easier. They don’t have to worry about things like parking, and everyone has an Internet connection.”
But it is not just Hindus — people from other religions too are look for fresh approaches.
Many of India’s Christians, for instance, are being swayed by the growing influence of evangelists.
The Apostolic Tabernacle Church is located in one of Madras oldest neighborhoods, Vadamalai. The church itself, however, is brand new — a low-rise building with large, neon cross.
Inside hundreds of worshippers are gathered in a packed auditorium. The pastor, Reverend Sam Chelladurai, is one of they city’s best-known preachers and was trained in the United States.
His congregation is mixed — men and women, affluent and working class, and predominantly young.
Reverend Chelladurai, also has a popular television program on God TV, an evangelist channel.
“Today the world is ridden with all kinds of problems; young people are going through divorce, financial trouble, job and career related problems,” he says.
“It’s a very competitive world, one that puts a lot of tension in them.
“They come here and they begin to hear some hope. We use music for that purpose.”
As for stressed-out advertising executive Dinesh Damodaran, the answer lies in a meditation technique once popular among Buddhists.
“I meditate using the Vipassana technique — it’s very effective, it helps me handle the day-to-day pressure of work,” he says.
“You feel a lot calmer and are more productive at work.”
Vipassana is growing in popularity in India. Many institutions — both government and private sector — now offer courses for their employees.
India’s booming economy is increasingly having an impact on how young urban Indians lead their lives.
And in a country with religious practices that date back centuries, some traditions clearly have to adapt to changing needs.